As Jennifer Weiner wrote in The New York Times, “Show me a body part, I’ll show you someone who’s making money by telling women that theirs looks wrong and they need to fix it. Tone it, work it out, tan it, bleach it, tattoo it, lipo it, remove all the hair, lose every bit of jiggle.”
And as a woman I have to add that we’re told to fix ourselves every day, all day, as if we are all wrong. It’s taken me 47 years not to take advertising to heart – but even now, it’s pretty hard to not feel pretty ugly after reading any trashy magazine or watching any TV show. So if a reasonably intelligent, street smart, (mostly) confident woman can still be taken in by media comparisons of women, how does your little girl deal with it? How can you “world proof” your daughter against the constant media barrage of images of the “perfect woman” and warn her of its unattainable status.
Prepare her for sexism and sexualisation; it’s everywhere across TV, movies, magazines, the Internet, in song lyrics and music videos. Girls get hit with messages about how ‘hot, or how ‘sexy’ they should look and dress or behave – “don’t ask questions, just do what the boys say”. These messages are also encouraging sexualisation of girls from a very early age, before they are emotionally and physically ready, so it’s up to you, as her first male role model, to get her to challenge it.
And she really does need YOU, the first man in her life, to take the lead. Below are some non-confrontational, non-embarrassing ways to start these conversations. WARNING: it will be conversations – meaning more than just one. This is a topic you will have to bring up again and again and again, from as young as possible to well into her 20’s – yup, I said 20’s.
- While watching TV shows or movies point out to your daughter, the scenes and episodes where female characters stay in the background while the male/s tend to “save the day”. Talk to her about how different things are in the real world. Teach her to question and be critical to help her decode and filter media messages.
- Show her positive female role models of women proving they can do anything – such as politicians, sportscasters, doctors, athletes – whatever. Encourage her to read books with strong female characters (“Harry Potter’s” Hermione), or ask a librarian – they often can make recommendations.
- Find positive websites and blogs written by women (see suggestions below) and encourage your daughter to read and participate.
- Ask questions like “Why do you think girls HAVE to look a certain way?” “What do you think of the dress that singer is (barely) wearing?” If your daughter wants to wear an outfit you think is too sexy, ask what she likes and/or doesn’t like about the outfit. If you don’t like the female images portrayed on a TV show, website, video, YouTube, say why rather than simply saying, “No, you can’t watch it” with no reason to back it up.
- Keep reminding her often that who she is and what she can accomplish are far more important than how she looks. Encourage her to stand up for her needs and wants and teach her saying “no” is not going to stop her from having fun. Let her make her choices on little and big things all the way from the pickle ice-cream she really wants to try to the fluoro-green dress that makes her look like Kermit the Frog and then honour her choice. I’m not saying let her do anything she likes but if she can justify her choice, respect that.
- Take advantage of opportunities that pop up and keep it in a casual conversational tone. Don’t become too pre-occupied or obsessed with your daughter’s dress sense or mannerisms, it’s all experimentation, a chance for her to find her own style. Sometimes adults see sexual references that are nothing to younger girls.
- Praise her, but not just for her appearance.It’s a balance of about who she is and what she DOES in the world, not just about her looks. How many times do you compliment your son or other men about their looks first or about what they’ve done? Here’s a challenge; match every compliment about your daughter’s appearance with at least two compliments about something on-appearance based. It’s harder than you think but becomes easier with practice. You can do that by getting into the habit of looking for situations or actions where your daughter does a good job or displays a talent.
- Build her skills independent of appearance. Sports are a great way for girls to build a sense of confidence, rather than focusing on looks. Research shows young girls in team sports have higher self-esteem and confidence because they look to other competitors and team mates for validation, not just the media. If your daughter is not sports minded then theatre, music, art, volunteer work, anything that encourages girls to express themselves using words will boost your daughters’ self-reliance and assertiveness skills.
- No trash! “Research suggests,” Catherine Steiner-Adair, EdD, a clinical psychologist, school consultant and creator of the “Full of Ourselves,” a social-emotional program for girl in the U.S., “that after 15 minutes of looking at a fashion magazine, mood shifts from curiosity and enthusiasm to comparing yourself and putting yourself down.” Trashy magazines pick away at the “stars” – and Lord knows they’ve got the support of makeup artists, hairdressers, stylists, plastic surgeons etc.; so how can you daughter even attempt to compare herself to the pictures in the media. But compare they do. Just keep pointing out the staff needed per “Star”.
- And on the subject of trash – don’t trash talk women. Don’t comment on other women’s clothes, looks or actions in a derisory way – and don’t allow the other men in her life to either, including uncles, brothers, family friends or peers. Think about what you have said about or to other women – would you really like that say to your baby girl?
Finally, make sure she knows, really knows, you love her no matter what – no matter her appearance, her dress sense or how she acts. As a father you can question her choices, even challenge them. Remember, even though kids are reliant on peers for self esteem, what her “Daggy old Dad” thinks of her will always matter, just as much as it ever did. One more thing – make sure you do the same for all girls in your life—your daughter’s friends, nieces, wife, sisters etc.